Ministers, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon,
I’m delighted be with you all today in Westport with Minister Ring, Minister Creed and other colleagues for this forum on Creating Stronger Rural Economies and Communities.
I’d like to begin by quoting another great Michael, Michael Collins. When campaigning for Independence almost one hundred years ago, Collins demanded: ‘Give us the future. We’ve had enough of your past’. I sometimes think he could have been talking about our lost decade, when the Irish people struggled and made sacrifices to rescue our country from the disastrous decisions made by others.
He could also have been talking about the neglect of rural Ireland.
It’s time to give us back the future and Project Ireland 2040 is our plan for doing exactly that. It is our plan to achieve balanced regional development, to regenerate and develop rural Ireland so that our growth and prosperity is shared across the whole country.
We expect our country’s population to grow by more than a million over the next twenty years, with two-thirds of a million more people at work. That is a huge level of growth for a country of our size and we must plan for it now.
So we are creating opportunities for organisations and groups to work together to benefit their communities, towns and cities across the country.
Project Ireland 2040 aims to ensure that 75% of the expected population growth will take place outside of Dublin.
In particular, we have set the ambitious target that the cities of Limerick, Cork, Galway and Waterford are to grow at twice the rate of Dublin, by 50% by 2040. And we want towns like Westport to experience strong growth as well.
As Taoiseach I dislike attempts to create an artificial divide between rural Ireland and urban Ireland, to play one off against the other.
We know the divide exists but it is not as great as some make out; the results of the two recent referenda, falling unemployment in all 26 counties and rising population in 24 out of 26 demonstrates that.
I believe Ireland will only be strong and prosperous when the entire country is strong and prosperous. Rural Ireland is an integral part of our identity and culture. The tapestry of Irish life is made up of many different communities interwoven together.
Half of our population live in communities with less than 10,000 people, and more than a third of people live in settlements of 1,500 houses or less, or in individual houses in rural areas.
Much of Ireland’s natural capital, environmental assets and heritage resources are held in rural areas including our offshore islands. They contribute in a unique way to Ireland’s culture, as well as to our national economy.
Here we find businesses of all sizes, in traditional areas such as agriculture and tourism, as well as in new ones like financial services, pharmaceuticals and creative industries. Almost 70% of our workforce is located outside of the Dublin region.
Last year 65% of the new jobs created by government-supported agencies were created outside of Dublin.
Rural Ireland is modern, dynamic and creative.
To give a good example, 100% of the world’s Botox is made by the global multinational company, Allergen, here in Westport.
Improvements to Ireland’s road network, improved international air connectivity, and the advent of the Digital Economy, all offer new opportunities for rural Ireland.
We are seeing increasing numbers of clusters of new and innovative companies growing in rural regions, including in sectors such as Life Sciences and ICT Services. Our food produce is world class and supports the employment of 163,000 people in primary production and food processing.
Our road infrastructure continues to improve, making access to and from towns and cities easier and quicker.
Rural Ireland provides a sense of place, space and community. These are important factors in attracting investment, and individual talent, to Ireland.
Agri-food and Tourism – both of which are crucial to rural economies – employ in excess of 18% of the national workforce. The agri-food sector remains Ireland’s most important indigenous industry, with exports to over 180 countries around the world.
Continuing to back ongoing rural development and the agri-food sector is a priority for this Government.
That’s why we’re investing €4 billion on the Rural Development Programme, which includes €15 million for the ‘LEADER Food Initiative’, and €240 million on the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund Operational Programme. Helping our farmers and fishermen is a vital part of our overall strategy.
We believe that meeting the challenges facing rural Ireland Developing requires a whole-of-Government approach. So our Action Plan for Rural Development looks at both the economic and social needs of our rural communities. We recognise that our rural communities need to be places where people can live, work, and raise their families and have a good quality of life.
We want to strengthen Ireland’s rural fabric and the communities who live here by planning for the future growth and development of rural areas, with a special focus on the renewal and development of smaller towns and villages.
This also means closing any connectivity gaps, including broadband. Two years ago only 50% of the premises in Ireland had access to high-speed broadband, that figure will be 80% by the end of the year. That’s still not good enough for those who don’t have it, but we are making good progress and we will connect everyone within a few years - farms, homes and businesses.
Improved digital connectivity, through the National Broadband Plan, will enable economic and sustainable living in all parts of the country. It will also open up unprecedented opportunities for businesses in rural areas to offer new services and to reach new markets over the coming years.
This Government has set ambitious targets in relation to strengthening rural development.
We will fund an additional 135,000 jobs outside the Dublin region by 2020, and revitalise over 600 towns and villages.
We will support more than 4,000 new community projects, double investment in flood relief works by 2021, and ensure that all homes and businesses are connected to high-speed broadband.
The Rural Regeneration and Development Fund, launched last week under Project Ireland 2040, will be a crucial catalyst in achieving these targets.
This €1 billion Fund will support collaborative, innovative and transformative projects across both public and private sector bodies.
This is a game-changing programme of investment, and will deliver positive impacts across towns and rural areas across the country.
Successful projects will leverage additional funding to maximise their impact in communities.
So this is an exciting opportunity for the private sector, educational institutions, local government, and others to really help shape the future of rural Ireland. The first call for applications under the Rural Fund was launched last week, and now is the time to start planning for how you can help your communities.
This €1 billion Fund, will build on other significant initiatives already announced under Project Ireland 2040. These include the €1.5 million Rural Innovation and Development Fund which will help female entrepreneurs, social farming and agri-food tourism in rural areas.
A further €180 million investment is also planned in our six Fishery Harbour Centres, including major development projects underway in Castletownbere and Killybegs. Project Ireland 2040 investment will also be important in achieving the ambitious growth projections for the agri-food sector, set out in Food Wise 2025.
We will also support the bioeconomy. As well as ensuring more efficient use of our renewable biological resources, the bioeconomy offers very significant opportunities for sustainable economic development, innovation and employment creation.
A dhaoine uaisle.
Tá sé in am dúinn a bheith ardaidhmeannach i gcomhair na todhchaí agus cuireann Togra Éireann 2040 (dhá mhíle is a daichead) sinn ar ár gcumas a bheith amhlaigh. Tá sé ar intinn againn forbairt réigiúnach chothrom a bhaint amach, na ceantair thuaithe a athfhás agus a fhorbairt sa chaoi go mbaineann ch’uile áit sa tír tairbhe as ár rathúnas ar bhun cothrom.
De bharr seo, beimid ábalta deiseanna a chruthú d’eagraíochtaí agus dreamanna a bheith ag obair as láimh a chéile ar leas mhuintir a gceantar, a mbailte agus a gcathracha féin ar fud na tíre.
It is fitting that today’s event is here in The Town Hall Theatre, as it was a voluntary community group who restored it recently to revitalise Westport’s rich cultural heritage.
The answer to revitalising rural Ireland is to be found in community-level initiative and engagement, coupled with the significant funding the Government is committing to rural communities under Project Ireland 2040.
The Government does not want Rural Ireland to survive. It wants to it to flourish.
I believe that this plan will make rural Ireland’s potential a reality for current and future generations. Let’s make sure we all play our part in seeing that happen.
So this is a call to action for those living in Rural Ireland and Communities all over Ireland.
The future belongs to those who have the courage to grasp it.
And that is what we need to do.